But they can all be competitive entertainment. The rise of esports has lead to a variety of game developers pushing their community and marketing outreach into esports competition when it may not be suited or appealing to their large and wide-ranging playerbase. This piece is not to determine which games should or should not be esports-focused, as we’ve even seen games built specifically for esports fail. This discussion is to highlight brands that re-examine esports as other than the height of competition or an emblem to traditional sports spectating and treat it more as the marketable and exciting entertainment that esports runs parallel to general gaming consumption culture.
With the upcoming genre of AutoChess games where randomization heavily affects a player’s chances of winning a match, it is relieving to see Riot Games’ potential approach to their version of AutoChess as a spectator “esport”:
Teamfight Tactics will feature in its own tournament at this year’s League of Legends All-Star event. However, a full-on competitive league isn’t likely for the title. “We’re going to focus a lot more on entertainment-focused infrastructure, that won’t be as regimented,” said Needham. “That’s just specific to how the game is played. It’s a bit more casual than League of Legends from a competitive perspective.”
John Needham, Global Head of Esports at Riot Games (The Esports Observer, 2019)
When it comes to treating a game as an esport, publishers and most tournament organizers seem to define esports as a serious and competitive tournament in front of millions of viewers and a stadium full of exciting attendants. For games that align with the players’ perception of skill and strategy, this is a fairly normal expectation. For genres where randomized elements heavily affect the game it can feel disjointed for fans to see a game, such as Hearthstone, take such a serious tone when it is typically played at leisure and without much focus or thought. It may appear as if I am talking negatively or downward about these games, but in reality, I am simply prefacing the idea that different levels of competition and competitive titles should be approached differently as esports entertainment. The attention, focus and energy I give to playing games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Poker or Dota 2 is significantly different than how I play Team Fortress 2, Artifact or Dota Underlords. Similarly with television, how I digest a sitcom may differ from how I focus in a serious drama – both are appealing but I treat them differently.
Not all games have to be esports but it’s not flawed to try different formats for a competitive title to see which resonates best with its variety of audiences. It goes without saying that even though the live-streamer, Kripparian, thinks people don’t take competitive Hearthstone seriously, he is mostly referring to his cultural and regional audience which may view Hearthstone less seriously than in the Asian regions (China, SEA, etc.).
Tone and Environment
In terms of tone and environment, two major studios have set the standard for a serious tournament set in a relaxed and fun setting for the viewers: HomeStory Cup and Beyond The Summit. Though the matches and competition are of the highest level, both HomeStory Cup and Beyond the Summit [BTS] have integrated an environment that spotlights casters and player personality, knowledge, jokes and memorable moments for the viewer.
HomeStory Cup & Beyond the Summit
Both HomeStory Cup & Beyond the Summit have the same premise: stuff a bunch of pro-players into a house (now enlarged studio), remove the live audience and let them hang out. It’s evidently more complicated than that but the elements of games being casted by sometimes 3 to 4 people, with pros jumping in and out on the mic at their own desire, leads the commentating changing from a partnership between colour-commentator and analyst to a casual conversation between highly-admired and respected individuals. It is a treat for both the talents involved as well as a unique experience for fans who want to feel a part of the event and don’t typically get to hear professional players talk, give insight and hang out.
To further this tone, Beyond the Summit’s creative team put together fantastic sketches and satirical pieces often involving pro-players and of which resemble popular skits or videos that audiences would recognize such as the YouTube video: “Rediculous B-ball shots!!!!!!!”
What’s also key to note is that this relaxed format can be applied to almost any game, allowing Beyond the Summit or HomeStory Cup to expand to games they typically couldn’t break into (as easily). For HomeStory Cup, they have replicated their setup for StarCraft II and Hearthstone whereas Beyond the Summit has achieved events for Dota 2, Counter-Strike, Super Smash Bros., Mortal Kombat, Rocket League, Team Fortress 2 and more.
Though I didn’t give them a paragraph, DreamLeague has also taken an otherwise serious game and league and converted their production into a very relaxed and casual setup. Their talent, a mixed group of both intelligent and personable people, tease and josh with one another in-between highly-competitive games. The mix provides fans with comic relief among highly-respected talent as well as the exciting ups-and-downs of competitive games. This mix also helps off-set the otherwise long and perceived repetitive nature of league formats.
Though if you’re not an active follower of these games or people, some of this content might look rough or immature. But these sketches are about engaging with the on-going conversations with its audience, being in on the jokes and, ultimately, having fun in an industry that sometimes takes itself more seriously than it needs to. In that admittance comes a plethora of creative ideas that resonate with an audience and distinguishes a brand from the monotony of competitive tournaments.
Formats & Modes
In terms of formats, we typically have varying degrees of tournaments or leagues involving a bracket and group-stage. Month-long leagues play group stages online with an offline bracket stage for audience attendance. However, many event organizations try or have tried unique formats, modes and broadcasts to distinguish themselves from other events, especially if it meant at a lower-cost or without additional logistical challenges.
IPL Fight Club
The format for the IPL Fight Club, a weekly show-match King-of-the-Hill series by IGN back in 2011 (to 2013) involved players being pitted against one another where the loser goes home and the winner received $500. For each win, the “King” receives an additional $100 bounty that which an adversary can claim the bounty if they win. Though show-matches are on the decline for many games, this unique format has yet to be replicated by other event organizers and really lends itself to a story-line of just how long someone can go undefeated and who will claim their bounty.
Streamers over Competitors
Twitch and their program, Twitch Rivals, really maximize the value of their platform and range of showcased games to provide a unique experience for fans and viewers. Instead of relying on competitors to be entertaining, they provide reasons for involved Twitch streamers to be competitive in games of all competitive levels (casual to serious).
Captain’s Draft is a unique mode in Dota 2 where a randomized and limited amount of heroes (27 out 117) are available for both teams to then ban and draft according to their play-style. For MoonDuck Studios, this was their first live event and its uniqueness played its part to set itself apart from other Minor and Major events. Captain’s Draft allowed for heroes that are typically seldom played to be played more often while also ensuring that games are varied in terms of strategy and hero cohesion as opposed to traditional tournaments that can sometimes see the same heroes picked regularly because of their strengths and benefits to the team.
Going one step further than Captain’s Draft, Midas Mode by MoonDuck Studios broke new ground. Not only did Midas Mode had an economy in their matches that would affect drafts for each team participating but the event also provided a variety of features for fans to be directly involved with these competitive matches. In the video below, we can see specials being able to fight professional players as Roshan, punching away at them using a VR headset. Other participation also include being units on the board to help teams scout and fight neutral creeps. Midas Mode is the only event to have this level of involvement with fans. ESL being the second organization to have additional activities for fans at their events (none of which have anything to do with the broadcast or matches).
Value & Viewership
For the sake of upholding competition, a lot of events start to blend in with one another, exhausting fans who can grow tiresome of seeing the same teams participating in match-ups they have done just the previous week. For Counter-Strike, there are over 30+ tier 1 events (32% of the annual calendar) and over 40+ tier 2 events (Beyond the Summit’s CS events are considered tier 2 but feature tier 1 teams). Not all these events are profitable, let alone distinguished enough to garner viewership akin to the cost to host and run these offline events.
It goes without saying that not all these events achieve their ideal KPIs. However, the consideration to alter an event into something that has a lower cost-ceiling in return for a more creatively distinguished event can help a brand be set apart from the rest. For example, WePlay Studios continues to operate their brand at extreme losses, but due to the efforts to distinguish their brand with unique settings, animated and live sketches and continued efforts in exploring esports competitions for games such as Artifact and Underlords, they were granted a Minor slot for this Dota 2 season.
There is plenty of room in esports to transform titles with struggling viewership into entertaining games to watch under the right tone and environment. As Riot Games has determined, if a game has aspects that reduce the quality of competition, it may be safer to gear the competitive scene to be more reliant on personality and entertainment over the sanctity of quality competition. For Nintendo, their annual World Championships receives harsh criticism from the Super Smash community because its ruleset does not align with what the competitive scene expects. However, for Nintendo, this marketable event aims to appeal to all demographics and players who may not treat the game as competitively as the esports scene does. That sacrifice plays into Nintendo’s targeted audience and frame for the Nintendo Switch to be accessible and available for anyone to pick up and play.
The conclusion of this piece is to say that not only has esports not explored sufficiently in what ways it can be more engaging and entertaining for some or all types of audiences, but also that its identity has become too narrow to hold all the brands and companies that want to jump into this growing market. The scene is expanding vertically but its horizontal expansion is revolving around types of companies, not number of companies. The identity of esports continues to be an on-going subject I’ve talked about previously in “Publishers are dictating what esports will be”. This article can be tacked up to the marketing aspect of the scene and the games involved.